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Handel: Serse
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5 of 5 people found the following review helpful
Perhaps what struck me most about this modestly priced Serse is just how evenly good everyone concerned is. The instrumentalists perform with impeccable taste as well as technique. That goes for the mellow-toned harpsichord continuo and the occasional wind parts as well as for the ubiquitous string band. In general it is a pleasure these days to hear agreeable sound from `authentic' performers, and hopefully the grim determination of the early days with their scrannelly squeak-scrape-and-squawk has been seen off. In particular I would like to award a special medal to the trumpeters for their beautiful tone, completely without the blasting and rasping that one still hears elsewhere.

The recorded sound is all of a piece with this - smooth and equable and probably avoiding any special attempts at vividness. That seems to me fully in keeping with the nature of this particular opera. The overture almost tells us what to expect, namely an evening of civilised musical entertainment without major effects or incidents. I gather the work perplexed some of its early hearers by striking a compromise between opera seria and opera buffa, although with the balance kept in favour of the former. It is not trying to startle much less shock, but Handel was taking a bit of a risk, and not for the last time either. These days we are made of stronger stuff, and my own impression of Serse is that it is one of the master's less adventurous efforts. This is not to call it light music. On the one hand the characters could be English gentry and not the court of the Emperor of the Persians, give or take a few death threats near the end, which are completely token and not to be taken seriously by anybody. This Emperor makes himself known to us not by issuing edicts but by expressing relief at the shade offered by a plane tree. This is of course the famous `largo', a tune as well known as the Harmonious Blacksmith but not given much development because it is only an arioso and not even an aria. Neither imperial nor very imperious, that, but setting the general tone for what is to follow. On the other hand when we do come to fully-blown arias there is some real depth, and I could cite Il core spera from act II.

It is hardly to be expected that in three hours of near-continuous singing every soloist will be exactly as good as every other soloist. For all that, the standard is very high and I don't find any of them outshone to any significant extent by their colleagues, so I shall assess the overall performance like the Caucus Race in Alice in Wonderland and give prizes to all of them. One aspect of the general smoothness that particularly pleased me was the recitatives and how pleasantly they struck the ear. Nobody needs any telling that Italian opera recitatives, even in Mozart alas, can easily come to sound like The Chipmunks. This time they are handled, doubtless also Handeled, gracefully, and what a relief that is, on a par with any of yer plane trees.

One real issue - I had almost said real problem - is the lack of a libretto. I was able to find a one-page synopsis of the plot, but for the full libretto (which may not even be absolutely `full' if I ever look for it because other performances are less complete than this) I would have had to join, enrol in or enlist in something or other. I don't quite go as far as Sibelius, who said that it is not necessary to understand the words in vocal music. However when the plot is as reach-me-down and commonplace as this one is you may find, as I did, that by reading through the synopsis and following the heads of the arias etc from the liner note to keep myself clear who was singing when I had as much understanding of the text as I felt any need for. The liner contains nothing else besides the opening words of the various numbers and the names of the performers. I'll make do with that in exchange for having the entirety of Handel's score, which may not be available in performance anywhere else. Add McGegen's direction and we have a very recommendable issue here.
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1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
on 3 September 2014
In my opinion, none of the generally available recordings of this terrific late Handel opera are perfect. This one comes pretty close however. Most importantly, Nicholas McGegan and his band and cast seem to catch the humour in this very semi-seria piece and that comes across especially in the recitatives. Especially excellent among the cast are Lisa Milne as a sprightly and fun Atalanta and Brian Asawa as the languishing thwarted lover Arsamene. The title role has some brilliant music and mezzo Judith Malafronte handles it all very well although without quite the dramatic bite of Anne Sofie Von Otter for William Christie. Susan Bickley may not be the most exciting Amastre on disc but her voice is strong and clear with good coloratura in her first act aria. David Thomas is a very good comic Elviro and Dean Ely blusters nicely as Ariodate. For me, the only really weak link is Jennifer Smith as Romilda who manages to be both tremulous and yappy at the same time. I know she does have her admirers but I am not one of them. She is, however, preferable to the even worse Elisabeth Norberg-Schultz for William Christie! McGegan seems to get the speeds just right and the whole thing fairly fizzes along. Even with a weak Romilda, this is a splendid set overall and my favourite recording of 'Serse' on CD at the moment.
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5 of 6 people found the following review helpful
on 5 December 2011
There's only one thing wrong with this set of three CDs. It's far too cheap. Anybody buying it ought to make a donation to charity. In many ways it's a model recording. All the performers are Baroque specialists, but there's none of the lack of drama that sometimes goes with early music recordings.

You won't find refugees from Romantic opera with excessive vibrato, just perfect, clear singing. Wonderful as the singers are, the real star of this performance is the orchestra. Every note seems to have been lavished with care. Every phrase has been carefully thought out, so that one of the joys of this playing is the constant phrasal and rhythmic irregularity. There is rhythmic drive without any force or aggression. The violinists stroke their strings. The recording is worth buying just for the sinfonia at the beginning of Act 3.
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